In 1998, states finally held tobacco companies responsible for a public health crisis they helped create by using manufactured science and slick marketing to sell a deadly product, reaching a settlement that continues to pay out hundreds of millions of dollars every year.

But too little of that money has been used for its intended purpose: to reduce the use of tobacco or mitigate its awful effects on public health.

With millions more about to go to states as a result of another public health disaster — the drug addiction crisis — we’ve got to make sure that doesn’t happen again.

One settlement deal, with pharmaceutical giant Johnson & Johnson as well as the three largest pharmaceutical distributors, all of whom did not properly monitor shipments of addictive pain medications while millions of pills poured into communities, is for $26 billion. It will be apportioned to states, including Maine, according to a formula based on the opioid epidemic’s impact here, relatively to our population.

In another, Purdue Pharma, the makers of OxyContin, have pledged $4.5 billion in cash and assets. Maine is expected to get roughly $20 million.

The money, of course, will not make us whole. It does not in any way match the pain and suffering these companies caused by downplaying the addictive properties of opioid pain medications and turning a blind eye as they were diverted and abused.

The settlement payments won’t even put a dent in the bank accounts of those who profited most from the misery of the last two decades, and whose actions set the table the horrible epidemic of drug overdoses that killed a record number of Americans last year.

The Sacklers, of Purdue Pharma, for instance, have successfully evaded criminal charges themselves, and they’ve more than protected their riches — it’s likely they’ll be more wealthy when they end making their settlement payments than when they begin.

In a country where tens of thousands of people are imprisoned for drug offenses that pale in comparison, that’s a little hard to take.

And it won’t cover the costs of opioid addiction, which they all contributed to — the price tag on that is more than $1 trillion a year, the CDC estimates.

Still, the money isn’t peanuts, and it is very much needed to address the drug epidemic, particularly the surge in overdose deaths that shows no sign of abating.

To that end, the funds must be spent where they will make a difference. Every dollar should go to preventing overdoses and other harms from drug use, and providing access to evidence-based treatment and support services for children affected by the crisis.

The larger settlement contains provisions aimed at ensuring that at least 70% of the money must go to reducing the use of drugs, something the 1998 tobacco settlement did not.

As a result, states ended up using the money to fill budget gaps rather than address tobacco use. Maine did better than most, but now the state uses the tobacco funds mostly to shore up the Medicaid budget.

Let’s not allow the same to happen with the opioid settlements. With the addiction epidemic now touching every corner of the country, our communities need the help.


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